Speaker Dennis Hastert, Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, and the rest of the “House GOP leadership” (an oxymoron if there ever were one!) all deserve major demerits — or perhaps major bonus points for political hack-ery, whichever way you want to look at it — for their behavior yesterday on the extension of the supposedly temporary portions of the Voting Rights Act. Meanwhile, my longtime hero Jack Kemp, writing on the same subject, went as far as outright obnoxiousness, stooping to cheap political name-calling of his fellow Republicans, and wholly undeserved name-calling at that, obviously forgetting Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment” in the process.
First, the morally preening Kemp, in a column so despicably below the belt that it should earn him ostracism from all polite company for months on end: In the column, he compares all the House GOP opponents of blanket extension of the VRA (and presumably all their supporters — such as yours truly, whose record on race-relations will compare favorably even to Mr. Kemp’s own superlative record on that subject) to the mid-19th Century “Know Nothings” who, in Kemp’s words, “were nativists who disdained Catholics and immigrants while dismissing African-Americans as three-fifths of a human being. When asked about their party’s position, they would reply: ‘I know nothing.'” Great work, Mr. Kemp, calling your fellow Republicans racists. His column goes on to attack our motives: We “either truly don’t know, misunderstand or, worse, purposely misstate the purpose and effect of the Voting Rights Act.”
Kemp then goes on to make a series of arguments that at least have the virtue of being arguments rather than gratuitious attacks. This is not the forum to pick those arguments apart, assertion by assertion by wrongheaded assertion, but here’s notice that I and many others could do so. But that’s what reasoned debate is about: respectful discussion, citing principle, marshalling facts, and using logic, to try to convince the other side and the undecided that one’s own position is right. (As I tried to do here, or as Ramesh Ponnuru did here, or as the Wall Street Journal has done several times recently, or as the courageous U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia did here in leading the fight for reason.) On his final assertion, however, here’s a challenge for him to document what I believe is not just undocumentable, but false: “the continuing well-documented efforts of elected officials to dilute minority voting strength and deter minority political participation strongly supports renewal of the Voting Rights Act.” Prove it, Mr. Kemp. Go ahead, prove it. Meanwhile, even if you can do so, and even if you can persuade people that your position is the more reasonable one, please spare us the accusations and insinuations that those who disagree with you are racists.
As for Hastert, Sensenbrenner, and company: Their strong-armed put-down of ALL amendments to the VRA legislation (again, do these guys know any way other than strong-arm tactics?) was accompanied not by reasoned argument but by boilerplate and sloganeering, all cravenly aimed at escaping just such charges of “racism” as those levelled by Jack Kemp. Never mind that a series of liberal, pro-VRA-extension, pro-civil rights academics have testified that proposals such as those in the defeated amendments are actually good ideas both on policy grounds and on constitutional grounds. Never mind that the amendments provide plenty of opportunity for creative politicians (creative in a good sense) to actually take the high ground in the debate, to become MORE associated with civil rights for black Americans, than they otherwise would be. Never mind that supporters of the unamended, leadership-sponsored legislation were so confused that they cited supposed irregularities in voting in Florida and Ohio to support their call for extending the provisions at issue — even though neither Florida nor Ohio would even be covered by those provisions, and even though it was the AMENDMENTS the leadership defeated, rather than the unamended legislation, that proposed to cover places like Florida and Ohio for the first time. In short, the leadership did not even bother, despite pleas from many of their members, to learn what the heck was in the legislation in the first place. Instead, they just demagogued and strong-armed, to the detriment of voters white and black alike. Shame on them all.